US-Latin Military Exchanges: Don't Forget Civilian Control

Article excerpt

A cardinal principle of democracy is that elected civilian leaders must have full, unfettered control over a nation's armed forces. Military establishments cannot operate autonomously; they must be subject to civilian authority. Some US overseas military assistance programs appear to be flouting - rather than defending - that principle.

Recent Washington Post articles by Dana Priest and Doug Farah report on the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), a congressionally mandated program that exempts the overseas training of US special forces from many of the restraints placed on other foreign military exercises. JCET operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, however, routinely pursue purposes that go well beyond training US troops.

They work with foreign armies to battle drugs, teach antiguerrilla tactics, and bolster US influence in the region. JCET conducts its business free of the human rights restrictions commonly imposed on US aid programs, and can legally operate in countries where other US military exchanges are prohibited. It is an ideal vehicle for building military-to-military ties without normal policy constraints.

This last feature of JCET can be troubling, however, if it leads to actions that are out-of-step with declared US policy. In Colombia and Peru, for example, JCET activity, because it's not required to take precautions, has apparently circumvented the US government's commitment not to arm or train security forces guilty of human rights abuses.

More disturbing is the seeming lack of civilian oversight - from either the US or host government - in the design, negotiation, and implementation of the JCET programs. The deal is struck between the militaries of the two countries, and carried out with little attention from civilian authorities. This is not the right model for US military cooperation in Latin America, where civil-military relations remain unsettled in so many places.

There are reasons for supporting JCET activities, which are, in many instances, serving both US and Latin American interests. In those countries where drug trafficking is subverting democratic institutions, better trained and prepared security forces are needed. Political violence also needs to be more effectively addressed in some nations. …

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